Discover more from ubique naufragium est
On Stephen Dedalus
Recent thoughts on fatherhood in Ulysses. Jean-Francois Lyotard makes an appearance. 03/21
Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.
The first cause of Stephen Dedalus’ isolation in Ulysses is the absence of a relationship with his father, Simon. In his peculiar way, Stephen addresses this problem by conducting an eloquent but impotent gloss of literature and philosophy, mapping the mundane reality of his personal woes onto a lofty realm of abstraction. Through a fallacious reading of Hamlet and a contemplation of the Trinity, Stephen justifies a fabulously sophistic refutation of paternity itself, denouncing a filial bond with a father with whom his is not consubstantial. In the end, he precludes all possibility of reunion with his father and of new union with Bloom, his impossibly – mythically – perfect counterpoise.
I consider the apex of Joyce’s satire to occur in the novel’s ninth episode, Scylla and Charybdis. In the National Library, Stephen delivers his biographical theory of Hamlet, by which he justifies his wholesale condemnation of fatherhood as a ‘mystical estate’ founded on absence and incertitude, to various members of Dublin’s literary elite. Stephen does not believe his own theory but defends it at length, inviting ridicule from his peers with wry but self-destructive abandon.
Stephen proposes that Shakespeare, whose own son Hamnet died before Hamlet was written, corresponds to the ghost of Hamlet’s father – ‘a ghost by absence’ – whilst also representing Hamlet himself; that is, father and son are consubstantial in the non-substance of the Ghost. Echoing a fragment of the Nicene Creed here as elsewhere, Stephen asserts that Shakespeare corresponded to both characters at once but was unaware of it: ‘a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow, the son consubstantial with the father’. He contends that fatherhood is an unreal office by drawing on the Trinity:
A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil. He wrote the play in the months that followed his father's death. If you hold that he, a greying man with two marriageable daughters, with thirtyfive years of life, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, with fifty of experience, is the beardless undergraduate from Wittenberg then you must hold that his seventyyear old mother is the lustful queen. No. The corpse of John Shakespeare does not walk the night. From hour to hour it rots and rots. He rests, disarmed of fatherhood, having devised that mystical estate upon his son. Boccaccio's Calandrino was the first and last man who felt himself with child. Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood.
The apostolic succession, too, is a ‘mystical estate’: Stephen jointly decries the legitimacy of fatherhood and the authority of the Church by claiming such a succession, like Creation itself, is founded upon ‘the void’, ‘upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood’. Relegating the act of fathering a child to ‘an instance of blind rut’, he realises the unconsciousness of paternal succession by wondering whether he himself is a father: ‘What links them in nature? An instant of blind rut. Am I father? If I were?’. Stephen’s farcical premise is that there is no substance where there is no con-substance; only a miracle can redeem fatherhood for him. When one of Stephen’s peers retorts ‘what the hell are you driving at?’, he responds with the internal admission: ‘I know. Shut up. Blast you. I have reasons.’ Simon Dedalus, ruined and servile and brought low by alcoholism, is the reason.
Part of the great genius of the episode is that, given that Stephen’s dearly hidden reason for his diatribe against fatherhood is his own father, his biographical theory of Hamlet is deliciously mimetic. Always aware of his own folly, Stephen spirals further into the depths of self-occasioned mockery; speaking in earnest is simply not on the cards. As such, within the novel’s overarching narrative, this episode cements Stephen’s immaturity and incompletion. In terms of the Homeric parallel, Stephen as the wandering Telemachus is thoroughly lost on his quest to return to his father, lodged firmly between Scylla and Charybdis.
The novel’s third and best episode, Proteus, is full of Hamlet and the Trinity. In Stephen’s famous stream-of-consciousness narrative, he embodies the solipsism on which he ruminates (more perfect Joycean mimesis) and exacerbates his isolation by denouncing fatherhood on abstract grounds. Stephen, in his all intellectual splendour and emotional puerility, resents being ‘made not begotten’:
One of her sisterhood lugged me squealing into life. Creation from nothing. […] Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler's will. From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever. A lex eterna stays about Him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial? Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality.
After invoking the dual nature of his creation – his body is ‘lugged squealing into life’ while his soul is created ex nihilo – Stephen imagines the dualism of the carnal ‘coupler’s will’ and God’s divine will. Considering his spiritual origins, which cannot be un-willed, Stephen does not deign to accept the substance of himself inherited from his father; he then invokes Arius to cement this lack of identification with the elder Dedalus. An amalgam of consubstantiation, transubstantiation, and a great deal else, the neologism ‘contransmafnicicandjewbangtantiality’ is a bit of a mystery itself which has long divided opinion (its reception is traced here). I believe it is vain to attempt to explain this word in full. It strikes me instead that the breakdown of Stephen’s monologue into nonsensical lexis emphasises the absurd pomp of his manically lofty ruminations which resist cohering into any sane conclusion. Stephen’s thoughts are not supposed to be generative; he simply hurls them into the vast sink of the ocean lying before him.
Stephen re-enacts Dr Johnson’s appeal to the stone:
No such thing as matter! Ha! Look, I just kicked a stone and now my toes hurt! I refute you! There is such a thing as matter! 
This moment is sublimely ironic. As J. Mitchell Morse argues, Proteus highlights Stephen’s failure to live by this refutation of solipsism: ‘He misses the point of his own test of the solipsist theory […] if anyone inclines towards solipsism it is Stephen’. Yes, indeed. Stephen laments his loneliness but does not strive to resolve it. In a shudderingly beautiful moment, he thinks:
O touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.
That word known to all men is another word in Ulysses with an equivocal history of reception, outlined here. If the answer is ‘love’, as is printed in the Gabler edition, then that love for which Stephen reaches is to be found in the compassionate, sad, sonless Bloom. For Stephen, Simon is as good as dead, lying five fathoms beneath the ocean’s surface; they never interact in the novel. Meanwhile, from the first meeting between Stephen and Bloom in the fourteenth episode, Oxen of the Sun, the two are drawn together by antithesis. Jean-Francois Lyotard presented a remarkable paper on this subject, ‘Going Back to the Return’, at the 1988 International James Joyce Symposium in Venice. Lyotard uses Stephen’s observation that ‘there is no bodily filiation from father to son’ as the focal point of his argument that, ‘In the end, consubstantial paternity is non-existent, except in the mystical sense which is that of the total uncertainty of filiation’. So, biological fatherhood holds no authority; instead, the Homeric parallel draws together Bloom and Stephen and anticipates the Homeric homecoming in which they might become united. In Oxen of the Sun, which is set in a maternity hospital, Joyce hints towards this possible ‘homecoming’ through the parodic language of a romantic medieval chronicle. Bloom is described as having ‘no manchild for an heir’ and feels paternal concern for Stephen: ‘so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores’. The notion of aristocratic succession through a male heir heightens the gaping absence of Bloom’s dead son, Rudy: Stephen is the replacement. This vision of mutual filiation and the Homeric homecoming defines the penultimate episode, Ithaca.
Ithaca is an exceptional episode. It parodies the question-and-answer format of the Catechism with excessively scientific (& often pseudoscientific) language, parsing emotional and unscientific phenomena with astonishing exactitude. In both its form and substance it reflects that Bloom and Stephen answer one another in the Homeric schema. In Lyotard’s terms, ‘filiation obeys the general principle that is reversible. The father is also the son of his son just as the son is the father of his father. They beget one another’. Bloom sings a Hebrew chant, in which Stephen ‘heard in a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past’, which is complemented by Bloom’s vision of the future in Stephen as he ‘saw in a quick young male familiar form the predestination of a future’. Their Semitic and Celtic heritages converge:
In what common study did their mutual reflections merge?
The increasing simplification traceable from the Egyptian epigraphic hieroglyphs to the Greek and Roman alphabets and the anticipation of modern stenography and telegraphic code in the cuneiform inscriptions (Semitic) and the virgular quinquecostate ogham writing (Celtic).
Bloom even offers Stephen advice regarding sleep:
What proposal did Bloom, diambulist, father of Milly, somnambulist, make to Stephen, noctambulist?
To pass in repose the hours intervening between Thursday (proper) and Friday (normal) on an extemporised cubicle in the apartment immediately above the kitchen and immediately adjacent to the sleeping apartment of his host and hostess.
Bloom is aligned with the feminine symbolism of water as a force of ‘universality’ and ‘democratic equality and constancy’; Stephen is the ‘hydrophobe’ to Bloom’s ‘waterlover’. However, antithetical complement soon becomes ‘incompatibility’ and Stephen’s ‘hydrophobia’ drives them apart: first, he declines Bloom’s offer to wash his hands given ‘the incompatibility of aquacity with the erratic originality of genius.’ This refusal looks forward to the crucial moment in which Stephen frustrates the homecoming when he fails to realise the significance of this meeting and turns down Bloom’s offer to stay. Perceiving their rift, Bloom represses his desire to provide Stephen with domestic counsel, as a father would. Though, as Cedric Watts puts it, Bloom’s ‘altruism would complement Stephen’s tendency to self-absorption’, this potential goes unrealised. The bathetic outcome of the episode accompanies the irony of the language in Oxen of the Sun and Ithaca; the relationship between Stephen and Bloom is ultimately not one of an epic nature, and the fate of homecoming does not exist. Instead, it is limited to chance encounter and glimpses of a future founded ‘upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood.’ After all, at the risk of being glib, Joyce’s project in Ulysses is to ironically place Homer’s epic alongside the ordinary and unremarkable. The synonymy of chapters of the Odyssey with episodes in Stephen and Bloom’s lives also serve as juxtaposition; Telemachus’ fate does not exist in Stephen’s world on that day in mid-June.
Stanlisaus Joyce observed that James’ relationship with their father was a reciprocal, loving bond, whilst the other siblings did not enjoy such a relationship. Joyce’s long-lived station in Paris perhaps accounted for this, given his distance from the destructiveness of his father’s alcoholism (a primary trait of Simon Dedalus’). It seems plausible that, by satirising Stephen’s rejection of his father, Joyce reasserted the worthiness of his own maintenance of good relations with his father in spite of his failures; in youth, Stephen lacks this fortitude. In cleaving from fatherhood, Stephen fails to demonstrate the stoic compassion which is so preponderant in Bloom and so oppositional to Stephen’s insularity. This insularity underscores the Telemachiad, mimicked so astonishingly in the Protean stream-of-consciousness. Fifteen episodes later, by the end of the 16th of June, Telemachus has not come home.
Ulysses culminates in stupendous bathos when Stephen departs from Bloom at the close of Ithaca, failing to unite with the sonless father and complete that Homeric homecoming. Poignancy shines through the parodic language of Ithaca: so many moments of encounter between Bloom and Stephen appear to the reader as counterpoints to Stephen’s claim in Scylla and Charybdis that a son ‘is a male: his growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy’, but Stephen remains inaccessible to Bloom.
Joyce inscribes onto Stephen all the folly of a clever young man whose soul is unfit to honour the heights of his intellect – but then, how could it? Stephen is the paragon of youthful disaffection wedded to an impossible intellect; his isolation is self-propagating; he is trapped in himself, always reviling and redounding like Satan in ‘many a round self-roll’d’; and yet to me he is completely, overwhelmingly loveable. It is hard not to feel a sense of parental frustration towards Stephen when you read A Portrait and Ulysses.
 Suddenly nostalgic for my old twitter name ‘Refuting Bishop Berkeley every time I stub my toe’ but I milked that joke for all it was worth, so it had to go.
 See John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello, John Stanlisaus Joyce (St Martin’s Press, 1998)